Sweating the Small Stuff

Posted On July 12, 2017

Go ahead and take a closer look.  These dedicated artists pay meticulous attention to the facts and details surrounding their work.  Amazing! 

By Rachel Haynie    Photos by Jay Browne 

Artists paint what they know in ways that parallel writers writing what they know. For a close-knit cadre of Columbia hobbyists to know – or learn - minute details of a history’s sweeping overview, members definitely sweat the small stuff!

Their careful considerations are manifested through production of dioramas – three-dimensional miniature models.

Was this the actual color in a tiny military flag? Which is the correct elephant: Asian or African? What insignias would the top official have worn on his blouse? And hats! Don’t get these members started talking about hats! 

Hats are so important to their discussions they dedicate a special meeting each year to which each wears a different hat, depicting a different period or former project they have worked on together. 

“Like the hats, the genres for the projects, especially the dioramas, usually are military,” explained Dennis Fontana, a former South Carolina Military Miniature Society (SCMMS) president who now stays involved remotely, from his current home in Texas. “A choice for a treatment could be a historical event, battle, book, movie, or a notable character.” Fontana expects to add a couple of vignettes to the August show.

Since 1975 members of SCMMS have painted tiny figures (which some remember from childhood as toy soldiers) as well as other supporting elements such as: buildings, vehicles or animal-drawn modes of transport, and weaponry attendant to conveying a story from history, fairly recent or long past. 

Imagine what small paint brushes they use!

Darby Erd, a member in SCMMS’ formative years, says the legend of his painting a miniature figure with a singular horse hair is exaggerated, although he certainly pulls out one of the smallest brushes in his arsenal. 

Illustrations by Erd, especially of uniforms, have appeared in numerous military history and reference books. He is noted for illustrations of South Carolina Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology artifacts, for work over years with the South Carolina State Museum, and for painting award-winning 1/32” scale aircraft, as recognized by the International Plastic Modelers’ Society/USA.

Erd’s expertise reflects the levels of knowledge, artistic and design ability, and range of interest that characterize the membership. Professional representation ranges from the medical, legal, art, education, government (including law enforcement) and military arenas. The Columbia chapter also interacts regularly with the Charleston chapter. Road trips to meetings, shows and sales extend opportunities for member camaraderie. 

While the membership combines resources and pulls together on creation of the annual dioramas shown at the South Carolina State Museum, each member is drawn more to certain periods of history than others. 

Roger Jacobs is partial to the turn-of-the century Delhi Durbar, a vibrant period during the height of the British Empire marking the succession of an Emperor or Empress of India. Recently back in the Midlands after retiring from a long military career, Jacobs said: “I’ve always been interested in British India. Pieces to populate this period form the heart of my collection.”

Jacobs knows his British Empire history. “Over a two week period, the Dubar attracted elite travelers from across the globe. The grand entry parade was the first big event.” Jacobs interprets this event with his meticulously researched and freshly-painted figures.

“I have one elephant for this exhibit arriving with my household belongings from Germany, my last assignment, and a number of others on hand that I will be painting for the August event,” said Jacobs.

In addition to the large diorama this club produces, individual members also display smaller vignettes they work on separately. 

As the date of the annual toy show approaches, work behind the scenes, in members’ shops and on workbenches, as well as regular meetings take on heightened intensity. In order to arrive at consensus for the 2017 diorama’s theme, much was taken into consideration.

SCMMS president Jim Raymond said the criteria calls for creating something visually interesting that can entertain and teach.

Jacobs elaborated: “Once we decide on our theme – this year it’s Lawrence of Arabia, members quickly begin determining what they have on hand that can be repurposed to bring it together. This is where the painting comes in.” The recently-retired chief warrant officer said some pieces have been repainted many times and have appeared in numerous dioramas.

“Not having everything we need is our excuse to collect more,” Jacobs said. “The pieces are small, so they don’t take up a lot of space,” then he gestured to wall-length cabinets in which he showcases his extensive collection.

The organization’s challenge is not only to paint the miniature figures and accessories, but also to think through the logistics of simulating the proper terrain, or geophysics to represent the setting in which a battle or other scene transpired.

“It’s a great way to study history,” Jacobs said.